Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Viktor Ullman

Viktor Ullmann
Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

On September 8, 1942, the composer and pianist Victor Ullmann was deported from Prague and sent to the concentration camp-slash-ghetto of Terezín (what the German’s called “Theresienstadt”) some 20 miles north of Prague, in what today is the northwestern corner of the Czech Republic.

Even though roughly 33,000 Jews died at Terezín – mostly of starvation and disease (including Ferdinand Bloch, the artist of the watercolor above) – it was not an extermination center. Rather, it was used as a holding camp for prominent Czech Jews and as a transit camp for Jews of various nationalities on their way to killing centers or slave-labor camps.

Along with Ullmann, among the other “prominent” Czech Jews deported to Terezín were the composers Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, and Hans Krása; the conductors Rafael Schächter and Karel Ančerl; the violinist (and former principal violinist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) Julius Stwertka; the actor and director Kurt Gerron; the artists FrederikaDicker-Brandeis, Bedrich Fritta, and Malva Schalek; the poet Pavel Friedman and the architect Norbert Troller. Of this list of high-end talent, the only one to survive the war was Karel Ančerl.

Bedřich Fritta: “Facades for the International Commission
Bedřich Fritta: “Facades for the International Commission

It was as a “holding camp” for prominent Czech Jews that Terezín earned its greatest infamy. On June 23, 1944, the Nazis allowed representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit the camp so that they might dispel international “rumors” about “abusive camp environments”.

In order to minimize the appearance of overcrowding (there were nearly 60,000 internees being held in a space created for 7,000), the Nazis deported a significant portion of the camp’s population to Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit. They then erected shops, cafés, and playgrounds to make it appear as if the remaining “citizens” lived in relative comfort. The Red Cross representatives were given a carefully led tour of the facility and then treated to a performance of a children’s opera by the inmate Hans Krása (1899-1944) entitled Brundibar, meaning “bumblebee”. The dupes from the Red Cross swallowed it all, hook, line, and sinker.

The Nazis took the opportunity to make a propaganda film. Entitled “Terezín: The Führer Gives the Jews a City”, the film was intended to show how well the Jews lived under the “benevolent protection” of the Third Reich. During the course of the film, children are seen singing a portion of Hans Krása’s opera Brundibár and the composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944) is seen taking a bow after a performance of his Study for Strings.

Karel Ančerl conducts the orchestra for the propaganda film “Terezín: The Führer Gives the Jews a City”
Karel Ančerl (1908-1973) conducts the orchestra for the propaganda film “Terezín: The Führer Gives the Jews a City”

Once the film was finished and the Red Cross charade had ended, the camp at Terezín was cleared. 18,000 prisoners – including the children who had sung in Brundibár – were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were gassed on arrival. Victor Ullman was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 16, 1944. His wife Elisabeth, his second wife Annie, his 12-year-old son Maximillian, and all the remaining Terezín artists were packed into cattle cars and shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau on or around that date as well. Of this group, the only one to survive the war was the conductor Karel Ančerl (1908-1973). It is thanks to Ančerl’s post-war testimony that we know something of what happened.…

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